Who taught you to hate the color of your skin? Who taught you to hate the texture of your hair? ... Who taught you to hate yourself from the top of your head to the soles of your feet? ... Who taught you to hate being what God gave you? — Malcolm X
I’m not the greatest; I’m the double greatest. Not only do I knock ’em out, I pick the round. — Cassius Clay
Cassius Clay and Malcolm X were two of the most electrifying figures of the twentieth century, men who upended and rewrote the nation’s entire conversation about race. Malcolm X preached a powerful message of empowerment: He said that black people were strong and beautiful. Unlike his contemporary, Martin Luther King Jr., he also preached militancy, self-sufficiency and separatism. There was something about Malcolm’s persona — the combination of mental toughness, righteous anger and scholarly, disciplined demeanor — that made his words catch fire. Eventually, after a trip to Mecca, he softened his tone toward whites, recalling a young white girl he’d brushed off when she asked what she could do to help the cause: “I regret that I told her she could do ‘nothing.’ I wish now that I knew her name, or where I could telephone her, and tell her what I tell white people now when they present themselves as being sincere, and ask me, one way or another, the same thing that she asked.” And then there was Cassius Clay, the potent embodiment of black pride, full of youthful arrogance and loudly proclaiming his invincibility.
Kemp Powers’s One Night in Miami captures the two men at a pivotal moment in their lives, partying in a hotel room immediately after the victory over Sonny Liston that made Clay the world heavyweight champion. Malcolm is thinking about leaving the Nation of Islam; in less than a year, he will be assassinated, supposedly by three of its members. At the same time, Clay, Malcolm’s protégé, is about to convert and change his name to Muhammad Ali. There are two other iconic figures in the room: singer-entrepreneur Sam Cooke and famed NFL running back Jim Brown. A couple of Nation of Islam strongmen lurk outside (are they there to protect Malcolm, or keep tabs on him?), and there are several cartons of vanilla ice cream in the freezer.
Building a play around this real-life gathering is a brilliant idea, and the result should be a brilliant evening of theater. But although playwright Powers has produced an interesting and literate script, it is not a very dramatic one. There are two genuinely theatrical moments: one when Clay demonstrates, point by point, with the help of muscular Brown, exactly how he beat Sonny Liston; and a second when Cooke, taunted by Malcolm about the sweetness of such songs as “You Send Me,” performs the powerful civil-rights anthem “A Change Is Gonna Come.”
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The rest of the ninety-minute evening is spent in talk. The men protest Malcolm’s abstemiousness; Malcolm chides the others for insufficient dedication to the cause. There’s talk about the culture’s ingrained racism, entrepreneurship versus militant self-defense. The arguments aren’t particularly deep, detailed or revelatory, and there’s a lot left unsaid. Early on, it seems that the pedantic Malcolm is pushing a reluctant Clay into the Black Muslim religion — but Clay’s hesitancy surely stems from the fact that he’s about to join an organization Malcolm himself has come to distrust.
The characters don’t need to be historically accurate, but they do need to communicate the passion of these extraordinary people. To a certain extent, the audience knows how Malcolm, Clay, Cooke and Brown sounded, the kinds of things they said publicly, the rhythms of their voices. All the roles are well-acted: Morocco Omari as Brown, relaxed in his fame and stature, not needing to brag and perhaps a little amused by the intensity of the others; Nik Walker deploying a fine tenor as Sam Cooke; Jason Delane thoughtful and repressed as Malcolm. Colby Lewis’s Clay is a charmer — perhaps a little too charming and affable for the bumptious young braggart who taunted his opponents so unmercifully.
But the dialogue doesn’t bring the characters to life. Subject matter this daring and significant requires an equally daring leap of imagination.
One Night in Miami, presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through April 19, Space Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, denvercenter.org.